My colleague at the University of California-Irvine, Francisco Ayala, has been interviewed recently by the New York Times about his views on science and religion. Ayala is particularly suitable for the task, being a former Dominican priest and one of the world’s best known evolutionary biologists. I happen to agree with much of what Ayala said in the interview, but of course I will be focusing here on where I depart from his positions.

In the interview and in his latest book, Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, Ayala correctly points out that one of the many problems with the idea of Intelligent Design is that there is plenty of evidence that the universe isn’t well designed at all (this, of course, is not a new observation: both David Hume and Charles Darwin based their critique of the design argument on it). To quote Ayala: “Consider that at least 20 percent of pregnancies are known to end in spontaneous abortion. If that results from divinely inspired anatomy God is the greatest abortionist of them all.” Ouch.

But then Ayala turns around and provides an apparently elegant, but in fact deeply flawed, solution to the infamous “problem of evil”: “As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life, they were not a result of a deficient or malevolent design.”

Bingo, Darwin gets God off the hook!

But, wait, what exactly is the logic of this argument? Why are floods, droughts, predators and diseases a necessary component of the world? And even so, this seems to imply that God isn’t directly responsible for natural evil (human-caused evil falls into a different category altogether), because he didn’t design living beings one by one, he just set in motion the laws of the universe.

OK, but doesn’t a God who picks the laws of physics and biology bear some responsibility for their outcome, however indirectly? Is He not all-powerful, all-good and all-knowing? I mean, when a human-made bridge collapses we still investigate whether the engineers who designed it have some reasonable degree of culpability (or whether, ironically, it was an “act of God”). Perhaps God cannot be accused of genocide, but how about at least manslaughter? (Over and over and over again, of course...)

I would have expected a better effort from a scientist who has the additional insight of being a former priest, hence familiar with so-called theological arguments. But the fact is that it is next to impossible to come up with any better excuse for God, and when one wishes at all costs to reconcile its existence with what we know of the universe, one is bound to run afoul of elementary logic.

Of course, Ayala may actually be an atheist and simply not want to get embroiled in a Dawkins-like media frenzy. When asked by the NYT reporter what his belief is, Ayala coyly replied: “I don’t want to be tagged, by one side or the other.”

Yes, Francisco, but what about intellectual honesty?